SYMPHONY IN X
at Center Theater Studio
In an explanatory program note playwright Maggie Berg says that her new play, Symphony in X, is the product of anger and confusion. She speaks of her generation, which Douglas Coupland dubbed "Generation X," as a group somehow left disenfranchised but not without hope. She says she wrote her play in reaction to the difficult period between the Chernobyl nuclear accident and the year she lost her first job, 1990. Her point is vague, though she seems to obliquely describe some cultural angst; she ends with a hope "to revive the organic whole." Sadly, in the script her confusion and anger surface as a choppy quality rather than in passionate characters. Perhaps her mistake was setting out to write a statement about a generation instead of a play about people.
This is a shame, because in the play's opening moments Berg gives her characters some deft comic touches. Symphony in X begins in the apartment of three young women. Spud, a full-figured couch potato, springs onstage to the flourishes of the Dragnet theme and establishes her domain before the television, the embodiment of a generation raised on the tube. When Eve and Sydney arrive and begin to discuss the pitfalls of modern love, Spud uses a hairbrush as a microphone and pretends to be Sally Jessy Raphael. Sydney insists that she will never marry or bring children into a world so ugly, but she's clearly interested in their next-door neighbor, Kevin. Eve seems more levelheaded, but her energies are being consumed by a disappointing job search.
The list of problems facing Generation X is continued in the play's second plot line. Jason, a struggling young waiter who also lives in the building, is asked on a date by Robin, an older woman (or, as Jason says, "seasoned . . . in a good way, not, like, weathered"). At first it seems that Robin is making what might be called the come-on of the 90s to Jason, asking about his sexual history and genetic background. It turns out that she and her lover, Catherine, want Jason to help them conceive a child--but naturally, without artificial insemination. He hesitates at first, but after Robin offers him $100 for each of their encounters and complete freedom from responsibility for the child, he accepts.
Berg manages to cover the traits and concerns of this generation: television overdose, job worries, fear of AIDS, and the flight from responsibility. She ties the two plots together by sending Jason to Eve to ask her advice: does she think a child could be raised by two women? Eve firmly answers yes, but when he describes the bargain he's about to strike with Robin, Eve becomes angry and, although she denies it, is obviously upset because she has feelings for Jason.
Berg creates an engaging setup, laying out the characters' problems in an accessible manner, but the play begins to slip when she fails to develop the characters. Soon, because they're just mouthpieces, it becomes difficult to care about what happens to them, and even more difficult to understand their motivations. The interesting problem of Robin's attachment to Jason after their first few "business" encounters is never fully explored--Catherine does become jealous, but the issue peters out in a series of weak squabbles about being happy as a lesbian couple in an uncaring society. Jason's slow change of heart over the arrangement is drawn out over two very similar scenes, and ultimately it's not clear why he makes the decision he does. Rather than exploring issues through this particular character, Berg makes Jason the Confused Modern Man who doesn't know what he wants.
Berg has some good ideas--like making Spud function as a Greek chorus, viewing the action of the play through the lens of pop culture--but she sacrifices too much in the process. Spud's character as an individual is neglected, and she becomes merely an overweight voyeur (a rather offensive characterization) with nothing special to contribute to the story. When Berg finally gets around to delivering the play's maudlin message of love, it's too late; she's already lost us.
Richard L. Schultz's direction keeps a steady pace, but the comic scenes are done better than the dramatic ones. The actors and director don't build deeply felt emotion--instead it explodes in abrupt, unbelievable screaming and pushing. DJ Giles as Jason and Katherine Wodele as Eve deliver the most appealing performances, with nice comic timing and an appropriate naturalism; but it's difficult to gauge the success of any portrayal given how the characters have been written. This script, especially in the way it introduces the story, offers some promise for Berg's future work. But next time, instead of providing a road map to the "organic whole," perhaps she should just write a play.